|Sometimes when you travel you run into information you had idea you'd find and discover a whole new perspective on a place. That was the case a few days ago when I was in Papantla. I was there primarily to visit the ruins of El Tajin nearby and walk a bit in the Centro of the city, which is very nice. As I walked in the centre, I saw many boutiques selling vanilla products. I also encountered a sculpture and little monument about the legend of the vanilla. That intrigued me so I made some research.|
As most of you, I thought vanilla was
coming only from South Pacific islands. I was thus extremely
surprised to discover that not only Mexico produced vanilla... but
until a few centuries ago, it was the only place on Earth it was
growing! Yes, vanilla is a Mexican plant.
First, it's a plant from the orchid
family... and it's apparently the only orchid (of over 35 000
species) that produce a fruit! It was used for centuries in Central
Mexico to flavour drinks and meals of the royals and high courts. It
was discovered ly 16th century by the Spaniards as they
conquered the area. They brought it back to Europe where it was also
very popular. But many attempts to cultivate it outside Mexico
failed because of the tricky pollination of this hermaphrodite plant.
It was only in 1841 that a young slave (at age 12!) in the island of
Reunion (then named Bourbon) that the plant could be pollinated
Legend of the vanilla: The plant grew from the blood of two young lovers.
After that discovery, the plants were
sent to be grown in every tropical territories of the colonial
powers. The Dutch implanted it in Java in 1841, the French to
Madagascar (1842), Tahiti (1848) and the Comoros Islands (1873), the
English in the Maurice and Seychelles islands in 1890 and the
Americans in Puerto Rico in 1900.
That broke the monopoly of Mexico on
this second most expensive flavour (only saffron is more expensive).
Now, the biggest producers in the world are Indonesia, Madagascar and
China. Mexico now comes in 4th place with only about 15%
of the volume produced by Indonesia. The plant is very expensive
because it has to be pollinated manually, in a very specific time
window in a day, it's pollination success is relatively low (about
75%) and the fruits have to be harvested manually.
In Mexico, the vanilla is mostly
produced in Northern Veracruz state, in the area of Papantla. The
harvesting season begins around December 15 (date determined each
year by a council). There are rules to select the fruits to be
picked up, in terms of size, colour, hardness, smell, etc. For
centuries, Papantla was known as the Vanilla Capital and not only for
its geographic position in the vanilla production area, but also
because it was common to make the vanilla fruits dry in the streets.
It was said the smell was spreading tens of kilometres around... so
if you were lost, you just had sniff your way towards Papantla :-)
Yes, you'll find dry vanilla fruits for
sale all over Papantla area, but that's not the only vanilla product
you'll encounter. For food, you'll also encounter alcohol made out
of vanilla, cafe flavoured with vanilla, candies, etc. But beyond
food, you'll also see jewels made with the leaves of the vanilla
plant, cigars rolled from vanilla leaves on top of a large variety of
clothing accessories woven from the fibre of vanilla.
So, it was a very unexpected surprise
to discover the vanilla country while I didn't know anything about
it. It also allowed me to know more about this plant and flavour.
Cigars and cigarillos made out of the leaves of vanilla